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(L-r) EILEEN ATKINS as Gramma, ALICE ENGLERT as Lena Duchannes and JEREMY IRONS as Macon Ravenwood in Alcon Entertainment's supernatural love story “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (L-r) EILEEN ATKINS as Gramma, ALICE ENGLERT as Lena Duchannes and JEREMY IRONS as Macon Ravenwood in Alcon Entertainment's supernatural love story “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

explainer

Shifters, Evos, and Casters: Your Guide to the Complex World of Beautiful Creatures

Any supernatural romance with star-crossed lovers spawned from a young-adult franchise is bound to be blessed (or cursed) as "the next Twilight." But in the case of Beautiful Creatures (the first of the Caster Chronicles series to be adapted to film), we are going to dispel that notion right away. If the central metaphor of the Twilight books was abstinence, the Caster Chronicles are about self-empowerment, and that power is (mostly) female. You might call the characters witches, but they call themselves "Casters,” as in Spell Casters. The series is told from the point of view of a male Mortal who falls for the new girl in his sleepy South Carolina town and learns the truth behind her mysterious, dangerous abilities. It's a southern Gothic tale, replete with Civil War reenactments, voodoo, demons, and a curse that has lasted for centuries. By comparison, the Twilight mythology looks pretty thin. (Vampires and werewolves? Is that all you got?) But since any Mortal visiting this world might find all of this a little confusing, we enlisted the help of the books' co-authors, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, and the webmasters for the official fansite, Caster Girls, to break it down.

The Lovers — a Caster and a Mortal
Ethan Wate (played in the movie by Alden Ehrenreich) is a teenager whose mother has recently died and whose father has become a recluse. Ethan is named after one of his ancestors, a Civil War defector (a badge of pride in his family), and his liberal parents often butted heads with the rest of the town of Gatlin. Now, in the months leading up to her 16th birthday, Lena Duchannes (played by Alice Englert) has come to stay with her uncle Macon Ravenwood (played by Jeremy Irons), a shut-in who owns most of Gatlin. Strangely, Ethan and Lena have already been dreaming about each other before they've even met, and they share a telepathic connection. Needless to say, Lena is not like any of the other girls in Gatlin (especially the peppy blonde cheerleaders). She writes poetry, wears Gothic clothing, and has a strange charm necklace festooned with things like soda-can tabs, buttons, string, and sea glass. She also has an ever-changing number written on her hand, counting down the days until she turns 16. (That’s the age at which Casters, what they call witches in this story, come of age with a "Claiming" — when they turn to the Light or the Dark.) When a window breaks during a class while she's being teased by the other students, Ethan begins to sense her powers, and he's intrigued, not scared.

But he and Lena can't really be together without injuring or potentially killing him. As he acknowledges, Lena is "a girl who burns me and shocks me and shatters me with a single touch" — literally. He feels a surge of electricity when they kiss, "like shoving a pen into an electrical outlet." After one particularly intense make-out session (or maybe it's more), he has a kind of heart attack: "I felt like my lungs were collapsing. The bed started to shake and lift. The lights in the room went on and off, and the room was spinning, or maybe growing dark, only I couldn't tell and I didn't know if it was me, or if it was the light in the room." The movie depicts this emanation of Lena's power with lightning strikes.

The Protectors — Amma and Macon
Although Ethan's dad is mostly MIA and Lena's parents are presumed dead, they do have parental figures.

Macon has taken Lena under his protection in Ravenwood Manor — known in town as the Haunted Mansion — and he also keeps an eye out with the help of his "seeing-eye" dog, Boo Radley. Also, Macon knew Ethan's mom when she was still alive, and despite generally not liking Mortals, he made an exception for her. ("A lot of the hints about that in the film are about things from book two," Stohl says). Macon also takes a keen interest in Ethan's dreams.

Watching over Ethan is a woman named Amma Treadeau, who's played by Viola Davis. (There's another protective woman in the books named Marian Ashcroft, but she and Amma have been combined for the film). Amma once looked after Ethan's father and is now a substitute mother for Ethan. In the books, Marian was his mom's best friend and colleague. Both Amma and Marian are Mortals but turn out to have a lot of magical knowledge as well. Amma is a Seer: She reads tarot cards and can contact the spirits and see the future. Marian is the Keeper of the Caster Library (as well as the keeper of the Mortal library in town).

The Powers  — the Light and the Dark
Lena is a Natural, which means she can control the elements — earth, air, fire, and water. She usually manifests this power in the form of lightning and hurricanes. "As long as I'm around, I'm hurricane season in Gatlin County," she jokes. She can also cause earthquakes and stop time. Her powers are strong, and might be among the strongest in her family. It's a large family, though, with powers both Light and Dark — heavy on the Dark, which makes Lena believe she's going to be Claimed for the Dark as well. Her mother, Sarafine (portrayed in part by Emma Thompson), the Darkest Caster in existence, is a Cataclyst — a Natural who has gone Dark — with the power of Possession. Her grandmother (who raised Lena for most of her life and is portrayed in the film by Eileen Atkins) is an Empath: She can copy or borrow a Caster's powers for spells (somewhat like Rogue in X-Men).

Lena's cousin (and fan favorite) Ridley was raised with Lena. Portrayed by Emmy Rossum in the movie, she's an alluring Siren, who has the power of irresistible Persuasion whenever she has a lollipop (or something similar) in her mouth. (Alarmingly, she can make people kill themselves if she wants). Another cousin (and fan favorite) is Larkin (portrayed in the film by Kyle Gallner). Larkin is an Illusionist, who can make people, places, and things appear to be something other than what they actually are. Lena has a couple of other cousins. One of them, Reece, is a Sybil — she can read faces and tell what people have seen and done by looking in their eyes. Another, Ryan, is a Healer. Meanwhile, Lena's Uncle Barclay is a Shifter, who can transform into any object, and her great aunt Althea is an Evo, who can morph into any person she wants. Aunt Del (portrayed by Margo Martindale) is a Palimpsest, who can read time by seeing the past and present all at once. Aunt Leah is a Succubus, and the protective Uncle Macon is an Incubus. Some of these powers might seem clearly to be either Light or Dark — but generally, it depends on the person who has them.

Whew!

The Claiming and the Curse
Because one of Lena's ancestors misused her powers to bring a loved one back from the dead, there is no longer any free will in the Duchannes family. When its members turn 16 and have their Claiming, they don't get to choose whether they will be Light or Dark, good or evil — the universe decides that for them, no matter what they might prefer. Lena fears she will go Dark, and rightly so. Going Dark doesn't just mean access to Dark magic. Once you Turn, we're told, your nature changes. "You won't be yourself," Macon warns Lena. "The person you are now will be dead [and] you will be capable of evil." (Capable of killing loved ones, for example).

Another aspect of the Claiming, not as heavily emphasized in the movie as it is in the books, is that in addition to determining one's true nature, it also teaches one's true name. (Before Ridley turned dark, she was known as Julia, for instance, which always causes confusion for her Palimpsest mother, who can't separate the past from the present.) "Fans always want to know what is Lena's real name," Garcia giggled. We won't spoil that yet. Let's just say Lena's Claiming goes ... a little differently than anticipated.

"If there is a hidden message to the series, it's about being brave enough to be the person who you are," Garcia said. "Whether it's like you to dress weird or geek out, be who you are."

The Loophole
The nature of the Caster curse has changed in the transition from book to film. In the Beautiful Creatures book, Lena is told that she might actually be able to make a choice at her Claiming after all, but the choice will have consequences. If she chooses to go Light, all the Dark Casters in her family will die; if she chooses to go Dark, all the Light Casters will die. This sounds draconian, but in the movie, we don't meet all of the family members. Director Richard LaGravenese wanted to retain the idea of a heavy sacrifice, Garcia said, so "he found a way to condense it into something simpler. But Lena still has to make a sacrifice."

Without spoiling that altered climax in the movie here, let us just report that Garcia and Stohl approved of the new ending. "It's still taking components from the universe, even though some of it is from book two," Garcia says. "But this is a super-dense story, mythology-wise, so Richard was trying to figure out what could be woven in now, and what might come later, if he gets to film book two. It's a giant journey. But you can't hire Van Gogh to do a painting and then tell him what colors to paint."

Photo: John Bramley/Alcon Entertainment